Back in late November of 2013, Rodney Smith of Jonesboro, Ga., decided to accept the Gophers’ offer of an official recruiting visit to campus. The running back had piqued the interest of then-coach Jerry Kill and his staff, and Smith wanted to take a look.
His mother, however, was skeptical. After all, Minneapolis is quite a way from the small town about a half-hour drive south of Atlanta.
“He came back and said, ‘I love Minnesota. I think I want to go there,’ ” Essie Smith said. “I said, ‘That’s kind of far, but I won’t hold you back.’ ”
Still, there was the matter of the school’s distinctive nickname.
“I said, ‘You want to be a Gopher?’ ” Essie recalled. “He said, ‘Momma, it’s a Golden Gopher.’ ”
And that’s just what Smith’s time at Minnesota has been — golden.
On Thursday night, Smith will begin his senior year with the Gophers in the season opener against New Mexico State. A workhorse for three different head coaches, Smith now has the chance to break Darrell Thompson’s school record of 5,109 career all-purpose yards.
“I’m definitely excited,” the soft-spoken Smith said. “My last first home game [of a season]. I’m pumped up and ready to go. I can’t wait to step out there Thursday and give it all I have.”
The Gophers will need that, because Smith basically is their backfield. Fellow senior and Georgia native Shannon Brooks, who has split carries with Smith over the past three years, is on the mend from a torn ACL and won’t be able to return for at least a few more weeks, according to coach P.J. Fleck. Behind Smith on the depth chart are redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim and true freshman Bryce Williams.
“Rodney Smith has the toughest job for a player, because behind him, with Shannon being out, are freshmen,” Fleck said. “It’s funny to watch Rodney be able to coach them, because he’s got to be a coach plus a player and expedite [true freshman] Nolan Edmonds and Bryce Williams and Mohamed Ibrahim and their growth. … Every day he comes to work and practices like a pro.”
That approach has shown up in Smith’s statistics. He rushed for more than 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns his first two seasons, winning a Holiday Bowl offensive MVP award along the way. Last year, he often carried an offense that sputtered in the passing game and faced massive defensive attention but still ground out 977 yards on 229 carries.
Smith’s 2,805 rushing yards and 3,850 all-purpose yards lead all returning running backs in the Big Ten, but his coach doesn’t want to overuse his best weapon.
“It’s been fun this year because I’ve had to pull Rodney back. ‘Rodney, get out. I don’t want you in there.’ He runs out in live drills and will go right again,” Fleck said. “It’s like, ‘Listen, I don’t want you in this one. Let’s let the young guys play.’ But he wants to be in there.”
Smith is willing to do more than what’s asked, including his desire to return kickoffs. He has taken two back for touchdowns in his career.
“I’m thankful that the coaches trust me to do that,” he said. “A lot of coaching staffs don’t like having running backs return kicks. I enjoy it because it’s another opportunity to get in space and make a play.”
Starting him early
Smith’s desire to get on the field started early. His father, Patrick, has coached football and baseball at Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, and he remembers a 2-year-old Rodney showing off his speed and elusiveness after a varsity game when the coaches’ families met on the field.
“He took off from one end of the field to the end zone,” Patrick said, howling with laughter. “I knew it right then. ‘I got a football player right there, buddy!’ ”
Rodney started playing football at 5, and he was immersed in the sport through his dad. “By the time he was 7, he knew how to watch [game] film and break it down,” said Patrick, who played wide receiver at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss.
Essie shakes her head at the memory.
“I was like, ‘You’re watching film already?’ ” she said.
Life, however, threw Rodney a curve at age 8 when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. With help from his parents, he quickly learned to deal with the disease, including the use of an insulin pump.
“We never babied him,” Patrick said. “We told him, ‘We’re not going to let this be a crutch. We’re going to deal with it, figure it out,’ and we educated him on it. His mother is a nurse, so she already was educated on it. It was just tough love.”
Said Essie, “He has had the most positive attitude about it — never missed a game. It didn’t affect his play at all.”
Smith amassed 4,002 all-purpose yards in his final two prep seasons despite suffering an ACL tear as a junior. And he wouldn’t stay on the sidelines even in the offseason. He excelled as a baseball player, batting .587 and stealing 22 bases in 23 attempts as a middle infielder as a senior. Patrick said the Colorado Rockies expressed interest in drafting Rodney but cooled when he signed with the Gophers.
“I always said he was a football player, but my husband said he was a baseball player. I got it right,” Essie said, laughing.
Raising his voice
Smith isn’t the most vocal of Gophers — he won’t be confused with de facto team spokesman Carter Coughlin or a chatterbox such as defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere — but he has stepped into a leadership role by tutoring the young running backs.
“It’s been tough, but the coaches do a good job of preparing me for that, and I’m thankful for all of them that they trust me with that role,” said Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in youth studies. “… The best way to master something is teach it. Not only the running back position, but just how you carry yourself on and off the field — body language when things aren’t well on the field.”
Smith’s parents have noticed the changes and maturation. “It’s something that me and his momma wanted him to do all his life, but Rodney led by example. He never was a vocal guy,” Patrick said. “Coach Fleck has pulled out some leadership skills in him.”
In July, Fleck gave him the honor of being one of three players to represent the Gophers at Big Ten media days, joining Coughlin and linebacker Thomas Barber.
Senior safety Jacob Huff noticed how Smith has grown since becoming a starter as a freshman.
“He was [a leader] for me, and he taught me how to be that when I became an older guy,” Huff said. “When he’s taking a rep, I want to be that guy taking a rep against him, because that’s the best running back in the Big Ten in my eyes.”
Smith is trying to live up to that status by becoming more versatile. This offseason, he studied film of New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, a back of similar stature to Smith’s 5-10, 210-pound frame who rushed for 728 yards and caught 81 passes for 826 yards as a rookie last year.
“The thing I like about Kamara is his balance; he has amazing balance,” Smith said. “He is great at running routes and is an excellent pass-catcher out of the backfield. That’s one thing that we’re trying to implement in the offense.”
Beginning Thursday night, all of Smith’s skills will be on display for one last collegiate season. He plans on relishing it.
“Soaking it all in,” he said. “It’s my last go-round, so enjoying the experience with my brothers while I’m still competing and trying to make not only the state of Minnesota proud, but also my family and coaches as well.”